THEATER REVIEW: “Church & State” @ Berkshire Theatre Group [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Roseann Cane
Photograph by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
A screen descends, and on it a political television commercial appears. We hear the voice of Senator Charles Whitmore (Graham Rowat), a Republican North Carolinian candidate for the Senate, and see a familiar visual collage of family, flag and good Christian folk. As the screen disappears, we find ourselves in an off-stage waiting room at a university, where Whitmore, accompanied by his wife, campaign manager and a starstruck student, prepares to stoke support for his candidacy by speaking to an enthusiastic crowd.
It’s just three days before Whitmore’s inevitable re-election. But it seems that something has shaken Whitmore’s devotion to “faith, family and football.” Just a week before, there was a shooting at the elementary school Whitmore’s two sons attend, and friends of his sons were among the 29 children gunned down. Whitmore is experiencing a crisis of faith and is agonizing over his established stance in support of gun rights.
His campaign manager, Alex Klein (an outstanding Keira Naughton), who also happens to be a Jewish Democrat from New York, is beside herself when she learns that Whitmore intends to forego his prepared speech and describes his doubts instead. Klein understands that such a speech puts Whitmore’s candidacy at stake, and she argues mightily for him to stick to the script. Whitmore’s wife, Sara (Judy Jerome), is devoted to her interpretation of Christian values and her relationship with the Lord. She may appear to be a subservient Southern belle where her marriage is concerned, but she has a will of steel and a temper to match. While her husband quotes John Lennon, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” she is outraged and unshakable, using every weapon in her arsenal – seduction, shouting, verbal manipulation – to bring back the man she thought she knew.
Playwright Jason Odell Williams is passionate about gun control, and he understands the need to create a national conversation before any change can be made. Much to his credit, he and director Charlotte Cohn (who is also his wife) have required a talk-back after every show. (An impressive roster of speakers is scheduled after each performance at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge.) On opening night the audience had the great good fortune to have a talkback with the playwright and the director, and I was gratified to learn about Williams’ motivation to inspire an inclusive, respectful discussion of gun control nationwide, which he wisely sees as a crucial step in bridging the divide in opinions. He and Cohn hope to take Church & State to every state in the union.